Places: The Death Ship

  • Last updated on December 10, 2021

First published: Das Totenschiff, 1926 (English translation, 1934)

Type of work: Novel

Type of plot: Social realism

Time of work: 1920’s

Asterisk denotes entries on real places.

Places Discussed<i>Yorikke</i>

YorikkeDeath Ship, The. Aged cargo ship on which the young American sailor without documentation, Gerry Gales, signs on as a crew member in Amsterdam. This ship represents the darker side of the world’s seagoing commerce: slavery, piracy, gun-running, and contraband. Its current voyage appears to be headed toward its deliberate destruction for insurance purposes, and conditions for its crew are appalling. The name “Yorikke” echoes the figure Yorick in William Shakespeare’s play Hamlet (1600), whose skull in the graveyard fuels Prince Hamlet’s speculations on the nature and meaninglessness of existence. Traven’s ship resembles poor Yorick’s skull in being abandoned in the grave of the world. Moreover, just as there is something rotten in the state of Denmark in Shakespeare’s play, so is there something rotten within the Yorikke–a microcosm of the universe.

As an archetype, the Yorikke calls to mind the Pequod in Herman Melville’s Moby Dick (1851), Dante’s Inferno in The Divine Comedy (1320), and any of the myriad underworlds in literature that represent the unconscious mind and darker side of human experience. The ship is a symbolic womb of death and potential transformation; an inscription over the crew’s quarters states, “He who enters here will no longer have existence.” To make matters worse for Gerry, he is assigned to the most appalling job on the death ship: that of fireman. His days and nights cycle through misery and an odd sense of joy as he comes to understand that his position in the cosmos, while tormented and absurd, also has depth and meaning in the bowels of this hell, which he grows to love and cherish because it teaches him how to survive in spirit.

With its hierarchy and cruelties, the Yorikke serves as a metaphor for a world driven by economics and power at the expense of sharing and compassion. When Gerry is shanghaied and put aboard the Empress of Madagascar, one has the sense that the Yorikke will continue its scuttling run forever, as will the indignities and indecencies that human beings perpetrate upon each other, and yet continue to endure.

<i>Empress of Madagascar</i>

Empress of Madagascar. Newer ship, onto which Gerry is shanghaied. Eventually, this ship does sink, leaving Gerry floating on the ocean as the book ends. The Empress initially appears to be a sound ship, but it is not seaworthy, and the entire crew and its officers are killed in an act of deliberate sabotage–a further comment on the deceptions and ironies of modern life. The Empress represents a system willing to destroy itself if that will ensure its material gain. The world is doomed, but the human spirit, in all this hell, will survive.


*Europe. Except for Spain, the governments of Western European nations–as well the United States, through its diplomatic representatives in Europe–are bureaucratic nightmares with no respect for individuals unless they have papers and money. Gerry is threatened with prison and denied by his own countrymen because he cannot prove he exists, and his situation becomes a comic and terrifying metaphor for the individual trapped in the modern web of indifference and alienation. By contrast, Spain is a haven; however, the threat of fascism looms even there. Posing as various nationalities on his misbegotten odyssey, Gerry offers the reader an understanding of the consequences of mistrust and propaganda, and how people are so often judged merely because of what they may appear to be and not who they really are. Like the Yorikke and the Empress of Madagascar, Europe is an Inferno, a hell in which people may breathe but are dead and not living, yet their indomitable spirit and tenacity to endure even this allows them to survive and hold on, even if it is only to a broken spar in a vast ocean.

BibliographyBaumann, Michael L. B. Traven: An Introduction. Albuquerque: University of New Mexico Press, 1976. Discusses Traven as a proletarian writer, focusing on his attitudes toward nationalism and capitalism. Compares language and subject matter in the 1926 German version of The Death Ship with the 1934 English one.Chankin, Donald O. Anonymity and Death: The Fiction of B. Traven. University Park: Pennsylvania State University Press, 1975. Clear, insightful psychoanalytic analysis of character and theme in The Death Ship. Provides historical and geopolitical background. Discusses literary parallels in the works of Joseph Conrad, Herman Melville, and others.Mezo, Richard E. A Study of B. Traven’s Fiction: The Journey to Solipaz. San Francisco: Mellon Research University Press, 1993. A comprehensive critical analysis of theme, character, style and structure in Traven’s fiction. Discusses the development of Gales’s persona in The Death Ship and later works. Extensive bibliography. A very good introduction to Traven and his fiction.Raskin, Jonah. My Search for B. Traven. New York: Methuen, 1980. An interesting account of the many mysteries surrounding B. Traven’s multiple identities. Compares manuscript, typescript, and various print editions of The Death Ship, tracing the development of Gales, the introduction of Stanislaw, the growing symbolic importance of the ship.Stone, Judy. The Mystery of B. Traven. Los Altos, Calif.: William Kaufmann, 1977. Includes excerpts from the only extended series of interviews with B. Traven, including a discussion of the theme of The Death Ship and revealing his complex social philosophy. An important source for analyzing Traven’s fiction.
Categories: Places